Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Claudia Gerini, Maia Morgenstern, Sergio Rubini, Toni Bertorelli, Roberto Bestazzoni, Francesco Cabras, Giovanni Capalbo
Written by: Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson
Directed by: Mel Gibson
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence
Language: Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew with English subtitles
Running Time: 127
Date: 02/25/2004

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bible Studying

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In "Lethal Weapon," Mel Gibson appears in a violent scene in which the bad guys hang him by his wrists from a drizzling water pipe and zap him with electric shocks.

Similar moments can be found in most of his films, regardless of who wrote or directed them. Gibson has been preoccupied with Christ imagery from day one. But for his third directorial outing, he has chosen not the nice stuff about turning water into wine but the brutal bits: the whipping, the bleeding and the crucifixion.

Gibson's two-hour "The Passion of the Christ" chronicles the final 12 hours in Jesus' life, beginning in Gethsemane, where Jesus (James Caviezel) learns that he must bear the burden of mankind's sins and die on the cross. Judas (Luca Lionello) receives 30 silver pieces for betraying Jesus, and the prophet is subsequently arrested and brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). At first Pilate balks at sending Jesus to His death but the unruly crowd soon convinces him. Cackling Romans brutally whip Jesus and make him carry his own cross to the mount, where he is crucified.

The movie presupposes at least some historical or religious knowledge on the part of the audience, as this portion of the story by itself doesn't make much sense. It contains only fleetingly brief flashbacks to Jesus during his happier days, preaching love and forgiveness and empathy. It's less interested in the why than in the how.

Moreover, viewers should be warned that this movie contains some of the most viciously violent scenes ever filmed; we feel every lash as Jesus' flesh is flayed from top to bottom by whips topped with little metal hooks. Gibson cranks up the soundtrack on every snap and rip, and the steel clang of the crucifix nails piercing Jesus' hands especially resonates through the speakers.

What's more, Gibson seems just as entranced by the violence as he is repulsed by it. Twice, he cuts to Jesus' point of view as He's being dragged or flipped upside down. You can almost feel Gibson's thrill as the persecuting Romans turn the cross over -- with Christ on it -- to bend the embedded, protruding nail points over backwards. Indeed, it's Gibson's hand that pounds the first nail.

On this and his previous film Braveheart, director Gibson tends toward populist impulses without much artistry or invention; he prefers bombardment to poetry. In The Passion of the Christ, he relies far too much on slow motion and on background music that sounds lifted from Peter Gabriel's score for The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), full of mournful woodwinds, rhythmic thumps, moans and wails.

Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood) also liberally add to the story, most obviously in the form of a creepy specter with shaved eyebrows that turns up from time to time, taunting Jesus and presumably offering him the easy way out. (A maggot crawls out of this ghoul's nose just to remind us how nasty he is.) The film also beefs up Pilate by making his wife (Claudia Gerini) a major sympathetic character; she brings white cloths to Mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) after Jesus' beating so that they can soak up the blood from the ground.

Strangely, Pilate and his wife are the only characters we get to know very well. They at least have a private moment together to discuss their feelings. Though Caviezel gets to wear a lot of makeup while bleeding and howling, the most important part of his character is missing. We need to see him forgiving and feeling sorry for his tormentors, otherwise we just want to hate them for their appalling behavior.

The same goes for Mary Magdalene, whose major role in the story is over by the time the film begins. For that role, Gibson has cast the lovely and versatile international star Monica Bellucci (last seen in the equally violent Irreversible as well as The Matrix sequels), but she doesn't have anything to do here except fret.

And yet, The Passion of the Christ ultimately succeeds in making us feel Jesus' anguish. By jettisoning bothersome plot and character details Gibson concentrates on the gruesome flogging and the trudging agony of Jesus carrying the heavy cross up the hill, giving us plenty of time to consider every horrible blow, every painful step.

On this very basic level, we come to empathize with the gentle Jesus, much like the unnamed Jewish citizen whom the Romans enlist to help Jesus carry the cross. By the time they reach the mount, the citizen's eyes are filled with awe and sorrow.

DVD Details: Strangely, Gibson has released the much-anticipated DVD without any extras to speak of. The only guess I have is that the usual "making-of" featurettes and commentary tracks would only cheapen the transcendental experience that many people consider this film to be. I did not want to see the film a second time, so I can't vouch for how well it plays on home video. I still prefer Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which does play well on DVD.

Note: In March of 2005, Mel Gibson re-released the film in a new cut called The Passion Recut, running 122 minutes. This version was not screened for the press, so I can't comment on it, but Gibson has said that he wants to appeal to a wider audience. Apparently, having the 9th highest grossing film of all time wasn't wide enough.

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